Jaap De Hoop Scheffer says he has no illusions about the complexity of the task facing Nato in Afghanistan. But the aim of its mission, he adds, is quite simple: finish what was started. "If we think we can leave Afghanistan on its own now after all that we have invested, we are making a fatal mistake," Nato's Secretary-General told Time last week. "Afghanistan was an exporter of terrorism, and if we do not want it to become one again, we had better take what we do there very seriously."
Who could argue with the Dutchman, installed in January 2004 as head of the 26-country alliance? Well, for starters, his own country. The Netherlands, a founding Nato member, faces a crucial parliamentary debate and vote Thursday on whether to honor a commitment to deploy some 1,200 soldiers to Uruzgan province in south central Afghanistan. It was De Hoop Scheffer himself, as the Dutch Foreign Minister for 16 months from 2002, who charted the Netherlands' careful course through the Iraq crisis, supporting Washington's coalition of the willing without alienating France and Germany. But now he's asking his compatriots for a more concrete show of solidarity: he wants them to almost triple their military contingent in Afghanistan, placing many soldiers in daily danger. "This is not an alliance where you can either participate or not participate, where you can basically pick and choose," he says. "That doesn't work."
The Afghanistan deployment, Nato's first mission outside Europe and North America, seems to answer a question that Nato member governments and their taxpayers have increasingly been asking: Is there still a role for the alliance established in 1949 as a counterbalance to the Soviet bloc? Watching the International Security Assistance Force (isaf) on the ground in the north and west of Afghanistan, under Nato command, there seems no doubt that the alliance has rediscovered a sense of purpose. The isaf, mandated by the United Nations to help the Afghan government improve security, has already taken over this duty in some of the most fractious parts of the country from the U.S.-led liberation forces, Operation Enduring Freedom (oef). In Phase 3, to begin later this year, the isaf is supposed to grow from 9,000 to some 15,000 troops and take on responsibility for six further provinces, while the oef reduces its deployment by about 1,500 to 16,500.
The timing of these moves depends on how quickly the Netherlands decides to commit its new troops assuming it does so. Opponents of the deployment say Dutch troops would inherit a situation that's still out of control. "They're sending a reconstruction unit in where the oef hasn't yet succeeded in stamping out terrorism," says Lousewies van der Laan, deputy parliamentary leader of the left-liberal D66, which is in the government coalition. "The Americans want to leave before the job is done, and figure the public picture is less bad if they put a Dutch team in there. We're not willing to participate in that political game. We don't want to be mopping the floor when the faucet is still running."
De Hoop Scheffer insists that even in the south, the Nato troops are "sufficiently robust" to deal with the security challenge, and that oef will continue to take the lead in fighting what he calls the "spoilers" from Taliban and al-Qaeda. "Of course, suicide bombers and roadside bombs and ieds [improvised explosive devices] are dangerous; this mission Nato is embarking upon carries risks," says the Secretary-General. "But what's Nato for? If you have an integrated military command structure like Nato you cannot possibly say, 'Sorry, we don't go because it is too dangerous.'"
Nobody is underplaying the risks. Last year's oef troops suffered 129 fatalities, almost twice the toll of any other year since operations began in October 2001. But Britain last week announced that it would soon start sending 3,300 new troops to the southern province of Helmand, and that the current British deployment in Afghanistan would rise from 1,000 today to 5,700 in the years to come. Canada has agreed to send 2,200 new troops to the south as well, a decision apparently unshaken by the death of a Canadian diplomat and serious injury to three soldiers by a suicide bomber on Jan. 15.
The Dutch government has tried to build in some protection against critics. It secured assurances from Nato that allies would come to their aid in the case of serious escalation. It also stipulated that any prisoners Dutch troops took would be treated in accordance with international law, spared from the death penalty and not sent to Guantánamo. But observers stress that the government needs a substantial majority in the 150-seat parliament "more than just 75 and a handful," as one Foreign Ministry official said to go ahead with the deployment. Even if the mandate for deployment is clear, there's a risk that coalition partner D66 may pull out of the government and trigger new elections.
De Hoop Scheffer, until recently at the center of Dutch national politics, is now focused on the wider implications of these possible outcomes. And although he urges his compatriots to support the fresh deployment, he understands their need to debate the issue. "You can say that the alliance is evolving and developing and learning lessons at the same time," he says. Insurgents fighting isaf troops might interpret the Dutch debate as a symptom of Nato's weakness. In fact it's a messy demonstration of its strength.